AB Analyzes His System

It was hot—the kind of hot where the second you get out of the shower, you start sweating. My ceiling fan could’ve provided relief, but the repeated clink of its pull-chain added an offbeat to the music. My goal was to analyze my system’s current strengths and weaknesses and define my “reference sound”. The fan had to go. It was time to listen.

The System
The Usher S-520 is Dr. Joseph D’Appolito designed, 50W, 8 ohm, two-way, front-ported compact loudspeaker. It does not use a D’Appolito configuration. Rather, the tweeter is in the corner, a port offset to the opposite side below it, and a midwoofer centered at the bottom. Mine are finished in glittery white paint and rest on 23", kitty litter filled Target speaker stands.

These S-520s are the same units Bob Reina reviewed in 2005. Since then, they’ve lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn and have suffered one dramatic, slow motion fall that chipped the bottom corner on one. At the time of BJR’s review they cost $375/pair. They are now $479/pair. They used to be in Stereophiles Recommended Components.

Powering the sparkly white horses is the Cambridge Audio Azur 540a integrated amplifier. It has five-inputs, runs 60 watts into 8 ohms and has bass and treble controls that I keep centered. The Cambridge Azur 540a is now discontinued, but it cost $379 at the time of purchase.

The “CD” input on the 540a gets constant loving from a bruised but functional Oppo DV-980H CD Player ($169/discontinued). Sometimes, the DV-980H refuses to eject the disc tray.

The “Aux” input drinks the nectar that is analog playback from a Rega P1 ($350/discontinued) equipped with a glass platter and blue felt mat and a brand new Rega RB101 tonearm and Audio Technica AT95E moving-magnet phono cartridge ($71). All of this runs into a Bellari VP129 phono preamp ($199/ discontinued). The phono setup has a mild level of noise that I can’t remove. It sounds like a bug zapper inside my tweeters. SM says a little noise is natural in any entry-level analog system.

It doesn’t seem to be a grounding noise. Per the Rega manual, the P1 can’t be grounded: “The arm earth (or ground) is automatically connected through the arm cable screening. No other earthing should be necessary.” Also, there is no low frequency hum typical of ground noise. I tried attaching a ground to a few metal extensions from the turntable. This did nothing. Because of this loathsome buzz, most listening on this test was done via my Oppo DV-980H CD Player unless otherwise indicated.

Oh, I nearly forgot my GE 3-5027 Personal Portable Recorder and Cassette Player.

Cables come from various sources: one pair of 10-foot, white-jacketed speaker cable from Belden terminated with locking banana plugs (around $75/purchased from Blue Jean Cable), unmarked unbalanced interconnects also from BJC (about $50), a Dynex unbalanced interconnect for the CD player, and a brand-less unbalanced female to 3.5mm male interconnect plugged into the Audioquest DragonFly DAC/Headphone Amp ($249.99) into a MacBook Pro.

With the new speaker positioning, my speaker wire is too short to reach the floor and wrap around the furniture on which the gear rests. Thus the speaker wire dangles ungracefully in mid-air from the amp to the speakers.

I purchased all of this gear except for the Dragonfly, which is a review sample.

Accuracy, Frequency Response, and Other Stuff
I started with the warble tones from Stereophile’s Editor’s Choice. A terrible rattling shook the sound during the midrange set. Huh? I followed the sound across the room to my speaker’s binding posts! Before the Belden speaker cable, I tried out some Trisonic speaker cable ($8/50 feet from my local hardware store). When I inserted the banana plugs from the Belden, I forgot to screw the binding posts all the way back down.

By my ears, the test tones revealed a fast roll-off at 50Hz, touch of warmth to the upper bass (100–160Hz), a mostly flat midrange, and a treble with a peak between 1.5khz—3.15khz and another around 5khz and fast roll-off starting at 10khz.

On first was The Harlem Sessions by my old band Swampluck, recorded in a cavernous loft space in Harlem with a pair of cheap condenser mics. The chicken-scratch guitar picking, hovering keyboard tones, and rich ambient information make it an excellent reference.

I noticed grit and hardness on Jordan Levinson’s vocals around 2k during “Lost Soul”. I blamed it on the microphones.

When I change to the bridge pickup on my Fender American Stratocaster at the start of second guitar solo of “Not Alone”, the extreme high frequency attack was stunted. The guitar tone had bite but focused more on the attack of the highs rather than the extension. This made my guitar sound more aggressive rather than expressive.

I tried a fairly compressed recording: “Bridge and Tunnel” by emo-folk rocker The Honorary Title. It popped with energy and prompted screaming along, but then, I heard the same hardness in vocals around 2k that I heard on Swampluck. Maybe it wasn’t the microphones.

On “In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3” by Coheed and Cambria, the choppy and chugging riffs were delivered with natural precision and nice weight to the guitars. Claudio Sanchez’s call to war, “Man your battle stations!” combined with the backing choir charged me up. With this dynamically compressed recording, my system maintained the music’s balls.

With an old home recording from my high school band Pigeon, my system accentuated hash already on the recording and revealed poor edits.

Geddy Lee’s bass on Farewell to Kings (LP) packed power falling within that upper bass boost. On The Gap Band’s “Season’s No Reason to Change” (Gap Band IV, LP), Robert Wilson’s bass notes extended cleanly and stopped firmly with his fingers keeping good time. His bass was moderately defined in instrumental tone.

Kick drums concurred that my system has no deep bass whatsoever, but kicks were still punchy and natural. Rather than get the body of the bass drum, you get the impact of the pedal against the drumhead. The system did not even get close to recreating the deep bass response needed for Shlohmo’s “Hot Boxing the Cockpit” (Spotify, 320kbps Ogg Vorbis) where bass synths were, at times, inaudible.

In casa de Bitran, bass is lacking in inner detail and low-frequency extension, but it is well controlled.

For the midrange, I first tested for colorations in brass. I heard nothing honky about the trombone solo in Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out”. The trombone could have been presented with more body. Its presence as an actual trombone was determined more by the player’s slides than the tone of the instrument. On the RX Bandits’ Progress, the horns seemed a touch lean. Edwin Starr’s “War” confirmed the slightly recessed midrange. Rather than be pushed by the body of the persistent horns, the music moved forward via a lively treble and peppy bass.

My test for midrange inner-detail is John Petrucci’s chord work on Dream Theater’s “Take the Time” where the multiple layers of distorted rock guitar should be represented by individual strings coming together, which it did not in my system. Instead, the chords came off in bursts of sound.

Don’t let the lack of inner detail to the midrange scare you. My system exhibited a startling liquidity within the midrange where notes could ease from one into the next. For example, on Brian Eno’s “In Dark Trees”, the clave attacks punctuated that darn lower treble but smooth guitar slides with generous sustain kept the flow of music natural.

Despite the peak in the lower treble, my system never came across as overly fast or etched. Attack was natural and friendly to pushing the pace of songs. The RX Bandits’ up-stroke ska rhythm guitars were quick. Slayer’s Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman’s solos on “Altar of Sacrifice” (Spotify, 320kbps Ogg Vorbis) raged with fire, and each note’s leading edge was heard but only grated slightly on the ears to the point of excitement rather than pain. I’m not sure what the guys in Slayer would have preferred.

As I’ve described in previous blog posts, the Usher S520s are finicky with positioning ie establishing a solid center image with even extension of the soundstage to both sides.

The soundstage was narrow and flat, but instruments could be easily defined laterally. Everything was stable.

Attack, Release, Dynamics, and Bringing the Musicians to You
The naturally toned organ on “All Rwanda’s Glory” by the RX Bandits dropped out quickly with fast releases on the individual keys.

On Dave Matthews Band Live from Red Rocks, the dark and dramatic “Rhyme and Reason” was ballsy. Carter Beuford’s snare had POP, his kick drum had thud, and his tom-toms were visceral in terms of impact. At one point, woodwind master Leroi Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley play a melodic line in sync, occasionally changing melodies from each other. While my system clearly defined the two instrumental lines within the mix, the lack of inner detail made it difficult to differentiate between the two players' instruments.

On David Grisman and Andy Statman’s Mandolin Abstractions as well as Sam Bush’s “Russian Rag”, I didn’t feel the short-stacked body of the mandolin behind each pluck, but I did get the sparkling tone and quick and exciting pacing. Similarly the “Acoustic Guitar Solo” on Stereophile Test CD 2 was short on body but had a nice bit of sunshine to the end of each strum and a percussive punch whenever the player slammed his wrist against the bridge.

When Bruno Walter conducted the Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (LP), dynamic range on the exciting Adagio was less than startling, but the system still spoke with power with each harmonic ascension. Yet, it seemed a bit strained. Strings were zizzy and brass was tacky. But then, the Largo started. I got chills. Solemnity and beauty. Within it, you see the sun rising and setting. Dynamics… who cares.

In the End
Rock recordings of all kinds generally sounded pretty damn exciting in my system. The rise in the treble and the upper bass gave the music energy while the liquid midrange kept the music flowing. Sometimes, my system would create a sparkling magic to the sounds. At other times, it came across a touch harsh. The sound is well-controlled and forceful, but at the same time the soundstage is narrow, the dynamics are limited, and instruments lacked body and deep bass. Lean but punchy and a little tipped up, the system runs a touch cool. This is the system of a Stereophile employee.

jimtavegia's picture

By the photo, IMHO, your speakers seem too close together to get much of a wide soundstage.  The golden triangle is that you should be sitting back further than your speakers are wide.  Maybe you can't do that in your room as presently configured. 

Those speakers could probably use some rear and side wall reinforcement if that is possible. More bass should be the result. 

You are probably tired when you get home and relaxing and listening does beat messing with a speaker set up. You are probably closer than you think.  You'll get it.  

Ariel Bitran's picture

"your speakers seem too close together to get much of a wide soundstage"

if you look at the picture with the article, you can see tape markings on the corners of my rug. I tried a wider setup at the beginning (which you can read about here), but found the lateral imaging to be a little less defined within the soundstage and I also heard a decrease in midrange energy which is just a shame.

the speakers where they currently are also have provided the tightest and most well-controlled bass i've ever had. when I spread the speakers out, they started interacting with the room just a little too much to my liking. I like my bass taut (and if possible with the equipment, deep).

and my room does have limitations. what you are looking at is my bedroom. i took that picture while standing on my bed, just right of my listening chair.

earwaxxer's picture

I didnt read this, only because that system looks much worse than what I had in college in 1975! Who cares how it sounds! I think my dorm was more "put together" as well. Not that make for better sound. It's more relaxing for sure. Not having wires hanging out all over the place....

Bill B's picture

You shouldn't expect or tolerate that level of noise on your analog side. The problem is almost certainly that phono preamp. Try a different one. Perhaps a solid state one

Ariel Bitran's picture

This noise is by definition a "modulation noise" (A hiss or other extraneous noise which "rides on" the main signal, varying in loudness according to the strength of that signal.") The Bellari has a volume control, when I turn it up, the noise turns up.

so i too, thought it may have been the phono preamp

so I brought in an NAD phono preamp sample we had (solid-state)

and the noise was still there, though a little less evident since the NAD did not have a volume control. The noise affects high frequencies the most adding grain to the highs on my LPs, which is just annoying. When I keep the volume low, the noise is less evident, but my analog signal is already kinda low. I'd like to turn it up!

I believe it has to do with something on/in/around/between/related to my turntable/tonearm/cartridge. 

Music_Guy's picture

Nice to see an entire system discussed that costs less than a single boutique interconnect.  For budding audiophiles or simply sound lovers with a real-world budgets this kind of system has more appeal than the usual Stereophile fare. Sweet rig for under 2 grand!

Don't blame that system just yet...that rolloff above 10kHz might just be your ears.  We'd all like to believe we can hear up to 20kHz, but for most of us those days are long gone.  (City living...live concerts...4th of July fireworks...headphone listening...airplane travel...)

Enjoy the music.

Ariel Bitran's picture

Here's JA's measured frequency response from the different drivers on this speaker. I did not look at this review while doing my analysis to remove bias.

it appears I wasn't too far off.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture


I'll whisper a heresy in these hallowed halls; "equalizer".  Yes, yes, I know all about noise and phase shift.  But, triage; deal with the biggest problem first.  If your frequency response is limited or humpy, due to equipment limitations or room acoustics, it can be reasonably corrected with a good used equalizer that'll solve 90% of the problem at one tenth the cost of gear upgrades or room treatment.  Sure, you may introduce some minor noise and phase shift, but those flaws will be overshadowed by a flatter frequency response.  

Of couse you wouldn't do this on a high end system, but my computer and my kitchen active monitors are now on steroids thanks to a couple of good, cheap, used equalizers which tamed a detail-cloaking mid bass hump, a higher frequency suck-out and some room issues.  

Every recording we listen to has been manipulated during and post.  JA's lectured on this and should be declared a national treasure for his honesty.  In the end we just want to hear the artist without techincal distraction.  

volvic's picture

The cat, I am sure he is absorbing some of the high frequencies, I always used to draw out possible setups in my room and experimented by rearranging furniture, speakers and gear to maximize listening pleasure.  Is the buzz from the Bellari?  Try plugging it into a different mains and see if that by any small chance solves the problem, try borrowing another phono preamp, try one of the discontinued Rega Fono's they are very good and very quiet.  Fun hobby eh? 

Ariel Bitran's picture

I tried this as well.

it should also be noted that my CD player does not have any noise. it is enjoyably silent.

maybe i should get more cats.

volvic's picture

Many years ago with my system there was a slight hum through the speakers when the phono section was on.  I don't remember who the culprit was but I did fix it by removing a ground plug prong from an unused extension cord, then took a long shielded cable soldered that prong and stuck it where it was supposed to go - the ground outlet of an unused mains, then connected the other half to the amplifier ground.  That really helped.  Perhaps those tube phono preams make more noise, not sure, but a fellow who works at Academy had a humming problem through his Manley phono preamp and he had to send it back for repairs and that solved his problem.  Perhaps the culprit is the Bellari.  

Ariel Bitran's picture

i could try this.

mauroj's picture



The hum could be coming from your tt being too close to the transformer in the integrated amplifier beside it. Maybe you should switch the spots of it and the cd player.


Ariel Bitran's picture


elricvanb's picture

It would appear that you are using an IKEA Expedit case...These should never be used on their side...The horizontal panels are supported only by little wooden pegs...Too much weight and they will collapse...In the vertical orientation, the actual shelves are supported by all the vertical panels...I'm very familiar with these cases; I have four...

Just a suggestion...

Ariel Bitran's picture

is a GREAT suggestion!!

visually, i prefer my hi-fi a little low to the ground and I have the furniture to do that (mostly, i may need a little table for the Rega) -- also, vertical storage saves space. as a professional collector of useless crap, I need as much as possible.

if i have some time on an upcoming weekend and I can think of a logical way to do this within the confines of my room, it will happen.

Bill B's picture

I've had sub-entry level analog and even then no noise issues at all. Working at stereophile ya oughta be able to borrow a turntable or get some "custom" consultation. Get rid of the noise!

Ariel Bitran's picture

first i have to do a cable comparison (my plans for Saturday)

Mark Fleischmann's picture

I assume you've already tried a different interconnect and a different line input for the phono preamp. Here's one more science experiment: Plug either the phono preamp or the turntable into an entirely different circuit (with separate fuse or circuitbreaker). You might have to use an extension cord or two from the kitchen or bath. Admittedly awkward but you might learn something from it. If that kills the noise, start looking into powerline conditioners that isolate components from one another. The problem also might be as simple as gunk on the stylus. Good luck.

Ariel Bitran's picture

i believe I can try the powerline experiment -- my house is on two circuit breakers, and I'm pretty familiar with how they're divided b/c i've blown out half my house on multiple occasions.

i'll also clean the stylus with my cleaner.

thanks for the tips Mark.

DougM's picture

How did this person get hired by JA? When the channels on his system were reversed and switching the speaker cables didn't fix the problem, he actually had to consult JA to figure out that it had to be the interconnects between the CD player and amp.

Thw photo here shows that he can't even put an LP back in it's sleeve and cover after playing it, instead putting it on top of the amp, thus blocking the vents on top that keep the amp cool, and also possibly warping the LP from heat from said cooling vents. I'm sorry, but I certainly don't need to read anything written by this person. Perhaps fewer bong hits would help.

Alexei Petrov's picture

This should be labled How Not To Set Up Your System. Funny stuff.

Ms Little's picture

Is always the answer.

Glotz's picture

Understanding you have a house, is there anyway to move the system into another room, and try the sound there?  Obviously it's not goint to address some of the inherent noise issues you stated, but what about room nodes that add or subtract bass or etc, etc..?

And clean your room!  

Ariel Bitran's picture

this is the only room for the system unfortunately

the bass is actually to my liking: well-controlled and forceful. the usher s-520s are spec'd to extend down to 55hz and that's about what they sounded like. unless i'm missing something here, I'm not sure if its possible to add bass extension (deep bass) without adding a subwoofer or just getting new speakers.


yes, my room has been a mess, but it's quite clean now. despite what this picture says it usually is (minus the typical stack of CDs on the Oppo)

Kal Rubinson's picture

Wanna try some measurements?  devil  I can lend you some stuff.


Ariel Bitran's picture


Et Quelle's picture

Unlike Stereophile employees I will only buy 1 or 2 components per year. This to stretch my budget to get as good a product as I can on a budget. Right now I am looking to get a Music Hall MMf 5.1. Don't feel bad I have a home theatre to integrate everything until I get an Ayre power amp to go along with my preamp and truly establish a separate listening room. You already have a listening room, I have five years to go.

Ariel Bitran's picture

for the record:

i've accumulated this gear over a period of 5 years, mainly through my years as an intern with Stereophile (2007-2009).

andy_c's picture

Are those speaker wires stretched out four feet above the floor going to the amp? It looks like an accident waiting to happen. Maybe the speaker wires double as a trip wire hooked up to some sort of burglar alarm system?

Actually the whole thing looks like it's meant to be a practical joke on the readers to see how they'll respond. LP on top of hot amplifier becoming warped as you watch? Check. Miscellaneous crap thrown on floor arbitrarily? Check. Bongos behind door acting as doorstop? Check. Bucket behind right speaker? Check. Ottoman nowhere near any chair that might allow it to serve its actual purpose? Check. Dirty clothes strewn about on floor? Check.

I must ask. Is the cat alive or has it been dead for weeks, or perhaps months even?

Bill B's picture

Ignore those nattering nabobs of negativity. 

Alexei Petrov's picture

"SM says a little noise is natural in any entry-level analog system."

The last time I checked even a lowly all in one receiver you can buy used on Ebay for around $50 with phono inputs doesn't have the noise Ariel is experiencing. I suppose noise and slowly failing components is the price you pay for "high end"?  A laughable situation and not gaining the trust of those thinking about "upgrading". No wonder Stereophile is losing the trust of those that actually think.

John Atkinson's picture

Alexei Petrov wrote:

"SM says a little noise is natural in any entry-level analog system."

The last time I checked even a lowly all in one receiver you can buy used on Ebay for around $50 with phono inputs doesn't have the noise Ariel is experiencing.

Ariel and I had a long email exchange when he noticed the noise, I suggested all the usual cures - checking all the signal and AC connections, grounding the turntable and tonearm chassis to the phono preamp with a separate ground wire etc - all of which Ariel tried. I understand that he managed to reduce the level of the noise but not eliminate it entirely. Further diagnosis will have to wait until I can visit his place and investigate in person.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile


Alexei Petrov's picture

10 days later and no update on the noise problem.

Ariel Bitran's picture

I've been very busy putting together a Stereophile Buyer's Guide. so any time I have for my system, I use it for enjoyment rather than analysis.

GeorgeHolland's picture

Let's hope the Buyers Guide doesn't insclude anything from your system then. Snap, crackle pop.

eugovector's picture

This is parody.  Kaufman-esque brilliance.  We all stand here on the outside hurling mud clods at the wall of delusion that protects audiophilia, but Ariel has burrowed his way in and now stands at the top of the wall, tearing it down brick-by-brick, bong hit-by-dirty underwear pile.

He KNOWS that a noisey pre-amp/tone arm/whatever is unacceptable, but passes along the absurd notion that such is expected in "entry-level analog".  He KNOWS that he could buy speakerwire of proper length from monoprice for the price of a New York slice and soda, but instead publishes a photo of a purposefully disheveled listening space because it reinforces the notion that proper setup is difficult to attain.  The chaos in this photo is comentary.  It is representative of the state of high-end audio.

Your comedy is not lost on me, sir.  (nt) to you my friend, (nt) to you!.

Ariel Bitran's picture

BTW, Thank you everyone so far with your suggestions for fixing this noise. 

Jerome W's picture


Is this cat a Korat ? 

Ariel Bitran's picture

I've never heard of the Korat breed, but he sure does look like it.

I do think his hair is too long to be Korat from what I've read.

Larry is an adopted cat. We think he has a lot of chartreux blood. 

I just call him a "Mountain Cat".

dan m's picture

Just in case you haven't tried it yet (or I missed it), some things to try. Disconnect the Bellari from the turntable. If the hum is still there, then It's hard to blame the tt. If it goes away it could be the tt - maybe try connecting it without hooking up the cart or a different cart. Don't run the low output signal interconnect from the rega behind the amp, where it could pick up noise - place the Bellari as near to the rega as possible, and run the high output cable to amp. HTH.

Ariel Bitran's picture

when i disconnect the TT

i will try moving the bellari closer to the turntable / away from the cable running behind the amp